Create Perfect Portraits in Lightroom Using These 6 Classic Retouch Techniques


With portraiture, what you see is not always what you want to get. Even the very best portrait with the perfect model will often need some form of post-production to get it to pop. Today we are going to look at six classic post production techniques to get the most out of your portraits. These techniques are generally similar in Lightroom and Photoshop but in this article we shall concentrate on Lightroom. When using Photoshop it is best to use an adjustment layer or a duplicate layer to preserve the original.

1. Blemish Removal

No skin is flawless and so to clean up a model’s skin we can use the Spot Edit tool from Lightroom’s develop module. Select the Heal tab not the clone and set a brush size about 50% bigger than the larger blemishes. Add about 25% feather and then simply place the cursor over the blemish. Lightroom will estimate what area should be used to cover the blemish but if this is not good, you can relocate the selection area to improve the coverage. At the bottom of the Lightroom window there is a useful Visualise Spots box, this reveals a negative version of the image showing where potential blemishes are.

Use the heal selection of the Spot Removal tool

2. Enhancing the Eyes

Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush tool contains a number of useful presets to enhance portraits. To enhance the eyes we can use the Iris Enhance preset, from the presets drop-down. Zoom in tight on eye area, then apply the brush over the iris area. By default the flow rate, the rate at which the effect is applied is set to 48. This means that you might need to paint over the area several times for the effect to really kick in. Once the effect is applied, you can further enhance it by adjusting the sliders for the tool. Clarity and Saturation are particularly good tools to use.

The Iris Enhance preset on the Adjustment Brush

3. Removing Wrinkles

Another Adjustment Brush preset comes in useful here, the soften skin preset. Like the Iris Enhance you simply carefully apply the brush over the wrinkles. Again like Iris Enhance, the preset is fully adjustable after the fact. You will find that the default brush size is very small, so that you can work on individual wrinkles. Another way to remove wrinkles is to return to the Spot Edit tool and use the Heal tab again. Select a small brush size and rather than selecting just a spot, click and drag along the wrinkle line. Lightroom will attempt to smooth out that line.

4. Blurring the Background

Not all of us are lucky enough to own fast prime lenses for that shallow depth of field, so in order to simulate the classic out of focus portrait background we can use Lightroom’s clarity slider with the Adjustment Brush tool. Select the tool and set the brush to a fairly large size and a feather of 10-20%. Now reduce the Clarity slider to -100 and paint around the model being careful not to cut into the model herself.

Painting an Adjustment mask to blur the background

5. Cinematic Style Portrait

The desaturated movie look is a great way to add character to your portraits. To achieve this we need to boost the contrast slider to between +5 to +10. We now boost the overall dynamic range by reducing highlights and whites by -10 to -20 and increasing shadows and blacks by the same. Play around with the exact figures to get a slightly flatter looking image.
Now we are going to slide the clarity tool to around +40-50%. Next we slide the Saturation tool to -50 to -60 to remove a lot of the colour from the image, you can also experiment using the Vibrance tool instead.

Now using the Tone Curve we can boost the contrast slightly. At the left and right ends of the histogram drag the line down slightly. In the mid tone region you can, if needed, bring the line upwards. This adds a subtle boost in the overall contrast.

The cinematic film look

6. Sharpening Eyes

The most important part of any portrait is the eyes. As well as enhancing them, it is a good idea to selectively sharpen them. Rather than apply a blanket sharpen to the whole image, which may reintroduce some of issues we have already removed, we can sharpen only the eye area. To do this, we return to our old favorite, the Adjustment Brush. Reset any corrections in the tool by clicking twice on the Effect text at the top of the tool. From the bottom of the Lightroom window, check the Show Selected Mask Overlay box and gently paint over the eyes. You will see a red mask being overlaid, helping you to to keep the correction only on the eyes. Use a brush that is about 50% the size of the eyes and a feather of about 10%. Once happy, select the Show Overlay box and boost the Clarity by 20% and the Sharpness to 70-80%.

Sharpen Eyes
Use selective sharpening for the eyes

While these are quite basic techniques, using one, some or all of them can make dramatic improvements to the look of your portraits.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Simply an excellent article. I am waiting delivery of Lightroom 5 and the instructions and suggestions here are superb.

Using the layer mask and high pass filter in photoshop also gives a better sharpening effect as well, see Phlearn tutorial on sharpening eyes Aaron is also quite entertaining to watch

LR’s adjustment brush is in my regular workflow but I did not know there were presets under the Custom drop down box. Never considered using negative clarity to blur the background, always using PS. I’ll give this a try. I use LR for pre and post processing using the adjustment brush from start and to finish. Sharpening and adjustments to eyes on birds and animals is just as important as it is on portraits. This was well worth the read. Thanks for the tips.

Great article! I’ve been using Scott Kelby’s method in Photoshop for portrait editing, but this made me totally re-think my workflow. This is a very well written article, thank you! I’ll be sharing this.

Thanks for the article. One question: In step 6, sharpening the eyes, you mention ‘Show Selected Mask Overlay box’. I’m using LR 5 and can find no such box. My screen looks the same as on your screen capture, which also does not show this box. Please clarify.

Dennis: I use LR 5 and it actually shows up only when you’re in the adjustment brush. Once you’re in the adjustment brush, look towards the bottom left corner…to the right of “SHOW EDIT PINS”…it’s a box you can click to select.

After selecting the adjustment brush, press “T” on your keyboard… a new area (toolbar, hence the “T”… you can reach it of course also from the “view” menu) will appear under your image, and there you’ll find the “‘Show Selected Mask Overlay” box.

Blurring the background: Click on RADIAL FILTER, click on the image focus point, pull out the mask, click on INVERT MASK, slide CLARITY all the way to the left. Not as good as PS radial blur, but OK.

Great tips, but I’m not sold on the cinematic film look. For the photographer it may be creative edge — but not very flattering for the subject!

Well, actually this is the only thing I didn’t already use in my portrait workflow… although a few times i had tried to sort of emulate it. Now I tried it now on 2 pics and it works sort of magic! Of course you have to adjust white balance and other parameters as well, and play a bit with figures… but well, tried it on three pics of a 2yo girl and two of them turned out amazing! (the 3rd was anyway poorly exposed, I wanted to test it on a bad pic… and yeah, it made it even worse).

Very good!

Are these features only avail for LR5? Or LRCC? I can’t seem to find them on LR4. Am I missing something or is it just a newer version that has these features?

Jason: Thanks for these great tips. I have not taken any formal training in LR but your tips will be very helpful in making my portraits look better. Thanks and looking forward to more articles from you.
Thanks for sharing with us.

Very good article and I appreciate all the comments as well. Certainly going to give the points brought out in the article a go on my portraits. Thank you Jason.

I have not ventured in PS but am wondering PS Elements, which I originally started with in the world of post processing, is worth working with as an adjunct to LR?

Many thanks!

Mmm. While I understand the need for improving a photo, the ‘remove wrinkles’ etc kind of turns me off. Taking out a blemish which is usually not there, is fine by me. But wrinkles? Wrinkels are part of a face. Faces/portraits turn more interesting when they’re not supersmooth, in my very very humble opinion. It’s part of who we are and what defines us.
When retouching, one should never ever lose sight of the true face behind the portrait. Wrinkles and all 🙂
That said, the explanation and tips are useful and clearly explained as ever.

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